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Train black box proposal jumps rails

New Delhi, May 16: The railway has derailed a suggestion to instal “black boxes” in train engines.

Like cockpit voice recorders in planes, the black box is designed to capture the conversation between the engine driver and safety supervisors to pinpoint the blame for train accidents.

The A.K. Sen Gupta Commission probing the Gaisal train accident had suggested the installation of voice recorders in cabins of locomotive and section control lines like the ones installed in aircraft.

“The voice recorder (can) be indigenously developed and installed in the cabs of all locomotives for better accident investigations. These should also be installed on sections control lines to record all conversations and keep on record the conversation of the last two hours for check after an accident,” says the report.

More than 100 people were killed after the Dibrugarh-Delhi Brahmaputra Mail and the Delhi Guwahati Avadh Assam Express slammed into each other in Gaisal in 1999.

The railway has already nixed the suggestion. “At present, providing voice recorders in the loco cab may not serve the purpose,” the railway said in the action-taken report on the commission’s findings.

Though there are no known reports of black boxes being used in trains, reports indicate that railway authorities in the UK and the US have been seriously mulling the proposal.

“We will be providing voice recorders in section control boards (at stations). With the introduction of mobile train radio communication, recording of communications between the driver and the control board will also become possible. Globally, the installation of such voice recorders is in the pilot project stage,” a senior member of the Railway Board said.

Telecom experts, however, feel that the quality of voice in moving vehicles does not provide for good recording. “Even when one uses cellular mobile phones on trains, one experiences voice breaks and call drops. Mobile radios function on a low frequency and hence the quality of voice is suspect. Recording may have posed lots of problems,” said .K. Goyal, president of the Telecom Equipment Manufacturers Association.

Railway officials did not wish to say whether the decision to have mobile radios and not recorders was taken due to lack of resources. A senior railway ministry official said: “We do not have much information on voice recorders, which are estimated to cost between Rs 3-5 lakh. The equipment will have to be imported either from Germany or Japan where a few companies have such products.”

For the first time in its 30-year history, on June 17, 1997, the National Transportation Safety Board of the US proposed that voice recorders be installed in the cabs of all freight trains and long-distance passenger and commuter trains to improve safety and help investigators pinpoint the causes of accidents.

The recommendation, sent to the Federal Railroad Administration, was one of the 36 issued by the safety board following its investigation into a Maryland train accident that claimed 11 lives in 1996.

Aircraft cockpit voice recorders have been used since the mid-1960s and have given investigators valuable information and insight into accidents. In many cases, voice recordings have been the sole source of information to find the cause of a mishap.

The railway ministry has also dismissed a suggestion by the Sen Gupta Commission to supply rulebooks and manuals in local languages.

The action-taken report says: “It is not possible to accept the suggestion to provide for hand books for all different categories of staff in local vernacular languages. Hand books for category-wise staff is available in Hindi and English and some railways have translated them into local languages. However, this cannot be accepted as a general policy.”

The commission had observed that rules for different categories of staff associated with safety should be consolidated into a document specific for each functionary and that should be available in the vernacular language.

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